Online Training in the Works

August 14, 2006
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Over the past three years, many HVACR manufacturers have entered into the online training and educational markets. Because product offerings are technologically evolving at an ever-increasing rate, this requires an ever-increasing level of education and product knowledge within the service and installation technician field. As a result, many manufacturers have realized the efficiencies and the ability to reach many more people through the use of Web-based training systems.

With the partnership of the Dealer Training Center (DTC) - www.DealerTrainingCenter.com with HVACReducation.net - look for the wholesale distribution channels to pick up the online training pace, too. Or, so is Jim Bunce's goal.

Bunce, CEO of Dealer Training Center, is on a mission to get every HVACR distributor and wholesale business to latch on to what his company offers: online training. "Most of the companies within this market have very fragmented training and none that we reviewed are offering any complete, online certification models," said Bunce. "It will be our goal to bring cost-effective online interactive training models with certification programs to this market.

"Our training packages will include a return on investment program that will offset the cost of integrating and implementing our training systems in addition to building, provide an extended community reach, and build marketing and branding for the distributors. It will also create an ongoing revenue-sharing model with our distributor membership to help build a training profit center, something that, to date, doesn't even exist within their channel."

C.C. Dickson Co., which has 108 branches in nine states, is the first distributor to embrace the "new" training resource. Because the midsize distributor, which has corporate offices in North Carolina, is spread out all over the place, it is difficult to host in-house, on-site training so dealers from each branch can attend. This new venture meets the distributor's needs.

"We took it to the management team and they saw how this could be a great benefit," said Pete Bleynat, system specialist for C.C. Dickson. "We see this as going to be a great benefit for our contractor customers."

NATE AND DEALER TRAINING CENTER

Boosting Bunce's hope to get distributors aboard DTC is the fact that North American Technician Excellence (NATE) recently entered into a "strategic alliance" with DTC to "bridge the gap" in NATE certification training. DTC can now offer training to technicians planning to take the NATE test. It can provide online preparation classes, all designed to give techs knowledge in the comfort of their own home and on a schedule that meets the demands of the industry.

The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) also believes that online training is the wave of the future. Ray Mach, director of education for ARI, has been involved with the DTC integration since ARI put together a strategic alliance with NATE.

"We will be integrating the ARI ICE tests, as pre-NATE exams, through the Dealer Training Center, shortly," said Mach. "We believe that working through the distribution channel is an effective way to reach the technicians in the field and support our membership."

Added Mach, "The fact that HVACReducation.net will soon have PAHRA (Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation) accreditation, which is strongly endorsed by ARI and NATE, should help sell the program to distributors and their dealers. This is a very significant achievement and will be available online to their techs."

It has become very difficult to find, train, and retrain qualified HVACR technicians, noted Geoffrey Fox, chief operating officer of DTC.

"Contractors certainly know how difficult and expensive it is to develop and/or find qualified technicians. Statistics indicate there are approximately 60,000 HVACR jobs unfilled in the industry today - and that number is projected to only get larger," said Fox. "The Dealer Training Center was formed in response to statistics such as these that exacerbate the overall need for entry-level and continuing education in the HVACR industry."

As Bunce noted, in the past some technicians attempting NATE certification did not have access to effective training and education. "A technician without proper preparation has less of a chance of passing the NATE exam," said Bunce. "With proper preparation, technicians passing rates climb markedly."

And if a wholesaler can help a contractor customer help his technicians get certified, it's a win-win-win situation for all involved, he said.

"The Dealer Training Center was formed to supply technicians with quality education and preparation by way of the wholesale distribution channel," said Bunce. "Training is delivered through distributor outlets in an online format to dealers and their service and installation technicians. This online format is available 24/7 and dramatically shortens the time - and lowers the cost - to provide effective, state-of-the-art training to a technician."

Above is an example of a branded Dealer Training Center Web page within the Dealer Training Center Web portal.

BACKGROUND

DTC is the "brainchild" of Fox. Prior to DTC, he contributed 20 years in software and IT-related industries, plus founded the American Disc Corp. in 1990 before selling the company in December of 2002. Its core business activities include the mass production of diskette- and CD-based programs for the software, industrial controls, insurance, and medical markets. Over the past two years, Fox has been putting together his DTC management team, which includes Bunce, Ken Kartman, Mark Hansen, John Markworth, and Tim Hallett.

It's no surprise that Fox believes e-learning is the next educational wave for the HVAC industry, as it has been a proven concept in the traditional education markets. "With good design and delivery, e-learning does many things," he said. "But, at its core, it should always remain ‘learning.' It's unfortunate that most interpretations put the focus on the technology - the ‘e' - and not on learning."

In his estimation, the effectiveness of an e-learner's experience is greatly enhanced through student-centered design.

"For example, students remember more information from a text book that is well organized with extensive visuals, reflection/interaction points, clear headings, etc. The same concepts exist for online courses - learners learn better through the use of clear headings, limited distracters, visuals, screen-friendly fonts, appropriate white space, Web-safe colors, etc. Basically, usability is the process of testing, through observation, how students behave with a course - what works, what doesn't, what confuses."

Fox's idea for DTC became reality with the partnership with HVACReducation.net, which calls itself an "asynchronous learning network (ALN)" for the industry. Director and teaching faculty member Chris Compton was instrumental in the startup of HVACReducation.net, as he also saw a need for online education in order to reach those potentially interested in joining the HVACR field.

"Our goal is to provide exceptional customer service and superior education in the HVACR industry," said Compton.

With input from fellow faculty teachers Junior Anthony, Fred Blackman, Mark Clemens, Shaan Colyer, Keith Conrod, Ben Doddema, James Eller, Mike Gelbaugh, Chris Hickman, Rob Merrifield, Robert Recko, Karen Ruppel, William Smith, and Dr. Mal Turaga, online courses were put together with the intent to meet or exceed the knowledge needed for various certification exams. With increased growth in enrollments, offerings, and partners, Suzie Sands came aboard as executive vice president. Recko is the division chair and faculty representative.

"The knowledge presented in the existing and future course offerings is material that has been identified by the HVACR industry groups as key knowledge for a HVACR technician," said Compton. "All industry organizations are promoting education, training, and certification. NATE has approved our courses with a ‘recognized training' status."

Courses through HVACReducation are mentored or instructor-led with assignments, text support, handouts, exams, and student discussions as found in any conventional classroom. The instructors are technician-teachers that have experience and industry certification in the areas that they teach, said Compton. All courses conclude with self assessments and exams.

"We know how difficult and expensive it is to develop or find qualified HVACR technicians," said Compton. "The great part here is that you can study in your pajamas if you want. Seriously, however, we are not reinventing the wheel. The world is now educated via the Web and, until now, there were no HVACR courses online. You won't lose time at work to go to a class, or miss reading a story to your child at night because you must structure your time around ‘class time.' Class time is whenever you say to attribute to a productive learning environment for your schedule. It can be at 2 a.m. or 10 p.m."

THE WAY TO GO

In the case of the Dealer Training Center, it offers three tiers of courses. Tier 1 involves an assessment path, whereby a technician can find out his basic knowledge level, then be able to take courses to fill in the education gaps. Tier 2 consists of review courses for certification purposes. Tier 3 consists of "traditional courses" in two venues: mentored and cohort, or facilitated models.

"In the past and still today, almost all manufacturers of products for this industry relied completely on standup or classroom-type training for their products and services," said Bunce. "In some cases, they use their distributor to host these training events. However, it has become increasingly more evident that this type of training does not fully meet the market requirements. They cannot effectively train or educate the vast numbers in the field, nor can they consistently educate on the ever-evolving highly technical equipment and systems that are entering the market."

It's one of the reasons C.C. Dickson jumped on the invitation to join DTC and produce online training for its contractor customers.

"If you talk to my children, or anyone 30 or under, it's the only way they want to do it," said Bleynat, referring to getting an education via the Internet.

Publication date: 08/14/2006

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